Why does God ask questions He knows the answers to (Midrash on Bereishis)
The Midrash has some choice words for Adam because of the way he answered God’s question: “Did you eat from the tree which I told you not to eat from?”
אַרְבָּעָה הֵן שֶׁהֵקִישׁ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל קַנְקַנָּן וּמְצָאָן קַנְקַנִּין שֶׁל מֵימֵי רַגְלַיִם, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן, אָדָם, וְקַיִן, וּבִלְעָם, וְחִזְקִיָּהוּ
“In four instances God knocked on the jugs and found them to be full of urine. They were Adam, Cain, Bilaam, and King Chizkiyahu.” (Bereishis Rabbah 19:11)
In other words, God tested the mettle of four people and found them to be lacking.
The tree of gaining knowledge and losing integrity
The first fundamental flaw that these four shared was to think that God’s questions were designed to elicit information. There is no information that a human being can possibly supply to God. Rather, God’s questions are, as we said, to test the mettle of the respondent. For Adam, as well as the other three, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. Depending on the answer, the destiny of the world could have changed radically. What would have happened if Adam had answered “Yes. I violated your word. Please forgive me.” Would Mankind have been punished so severely? Would we have to live by the “sweat of our brows?” And what if Adam included Chava in his admission. “Chava and I are so ashamed of what we did.” Would women have labor pains or any of the painful consequences of Chava’s act?
Instead Adam chose to respond with something very human, even true, but totally spineless and inappropriate. He basically said the equivalent of: “actually it is entirely the fault of the partner you gave me. I didn’t stand much of a chance with a mate like that.”
A picture of moral courage
Let’s contrast this response with the story of Yehuda and Tamar. She was about to be killed for having relations with an unknown person. She was supposed to be waiting for Yehuda’s third son to grow up and marry her. Tamar modestly hands Yehuda his staff and signet ring which proves that he was the one who impregnated her while she was disguised as a prostitute. However, no one had to know. She was willing to go to her death with his secret (and reputation) intact. Instead Yehuda publically declares “צָֽדְקָ֣ה מִמֶּ֔נִּי “she is more righteous than I.” (Bereishis 38:26). Yehuda was publicly acknowledging that he never intended to let Tamar marry his youngest son. Tamar was forced to find other means of securing her part in shaping the future of the Jewish People, King David and the Mashiach.
The moral failing and arrogance is easy to see in the case of Cain. When God asked him:
אֵ֖י הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יךָ “where is your brother Hevel?” (Bereishis 4:9) Cain gave his famous response: לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי׃ “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?” (Ibid.)
God asked Bilam to identify the motives of the delegation that had come to see him:מִ֛י הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה עִמָּֽך “What do these people want from you?”’ (Bamidbar 22:9) According to Midrash Tanchuma, (Bereishis: 5 quoted by Rashi ibid.) Bilaam’s arrogance led him to actually believe that God is not in charge of the world. That God’s question was a real question – seeking information that God did not know! What would have happened if the greatest prophet in the non-Jewish world would have come clean like Yehuda. What if he realized the folly of cursing the Jewish people and, instead, tried to influence the moral standing of Edom and Moav and the rest of the nations of the world?
Chizkiyahu’s missed opportunities
Finally, we have King Chizkiyahu who, according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a), could have been Mashiach. It was denied to him because he didn’t act spontaneously at a critical juncture. He didn’t sing a song of praise after the Jewish people were miraculously saved from the onslaught of Sancherev’s army. The Midrash relates another of Chizkiyahu’s missed opportunities. When Chizkiyahu was on his deathbed, he prayed to God and was miraculously healed. The Talmud in (Sanhedrin 96A) relates that Merodach-Baladan, the son of Baladan, king of Babylonia, was amazed to hear about Chizkiyahu’s recovery and sent a delegation with a letter and gift to Chizkiyahu. The delegation from Babylonia were coming in honor of God’s miracle. Yet King Chizkiyahu was so flattered by the fact that they came to see him, that he saw the need to impress them with his importance. He showed them all the contents of the Beit Hamikdash. (Yeshayahu 39:2) He cheapened the vessels of the Beit Hamikdash. The holy objects became instruments for self aggrandizement. He missed an opportunity to make a great “Kiddush HaShem ”– sanctification of the name of God. He could have turned their visit into an impactful lesson about who was the true God and the power of repentance.
This incident also came down to a simple question:
וַיָּבֹא֙ יְשַֽׁעְיָ֣הוּ הַנָּבִ֔יא אֶל־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ חִזְקִיָּ֑הוּ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֵלָ֜יו מָ֥ה אָמְר֣וּ ׀ הָאֲנָשִׁ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה וּמֵאַ֙יִן֙ יָבֹ֣אוּ אֵלֶ֔יךָ
“And the prophet Yishayahu came to king Chizkiyahu and said to him ‘what did these people say and where did they come from?” The prophet knew the answers to both questions. Once again, because of the greatness of Chizkiyahu, a more honest answer could have changed Jewish history.
Lessons from this world for the next world
Perhaps we can go so far as to say that the Midrash might be suggesting another way to approach the famous six questions that every Jew is asked when he gets to heaven:
אָמַר רָבָא: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמַּכְנִיסִין אָדָם לְדִין, אוֹמְרִים לוֹ: נָשָׂאתָ וְנָתַתָּ בָּאֱמוּנָה? קָבַעְתָּ עִתִּים לַתּוֹרָה? עָסַקְתָּ בִּפְרִיָּה וּרְבִיָּה? צָפִיתָ לִישׁוּעָה? פִּלְפַּלְתָּ בְּחׇכְמָה? הֵבַנְתָּ דָּבָר מִתּוֹךְ דָּבָר
“.. Rava said: After departing from this world, when a person is brought to judgment for the life he lived in this world, they say to him ‘Did you conduct business faithfully? Did you designate times for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you await salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom or understand one matter from another?’”.. (Talmud Shabbat 31a)
Obviously the Talmud is providing a short guide to living our lives as morally and meaningfully as possible. But maybe the right answer is the honest answer. The first question will be “were you honest in business?” If one was not honest in business perhaps this is the opportunity to say: “I am ashamed to say that I was not always so honest. I terribly regret this and ask for your forgiveness.” After all, as in the case with the questions asked of Adam, Cain, Bilam, and King Chizkiyahu, God already knows the answer.
So the message of the Midrash is, certain questions in life are a test of your mettle, not your memory